The plight of children’s services is a well-documented one, and it is in some ways a relief to see that organisations such as the Local Government Association are now listing it as the number one challenge facing local authorities. For too long, children’s services have been the ‘Cinderella’ service of the public sector: a non-priority for politicians and funding alike, but much maligned when things go wrong.
Children’s safeguarding is surely one of the most important roles the state can perform. Regardless of the colour of the flag above your town hall, this country needs to be united in its efforts to ensure that wherever they grow up, children and young people are safe and well, and given opportunities to succeed in life. Yet somehow, because most of our children and young people cannot vote for change, and because the Government has insisted on counting the wrong things for too long, this is not the case. The system has descended into a vicious circle of justification and missing evidence at a time when austerity has taken money away from the very services designed to demonstrate the effectiveness of supporting vulnerable children, young people and their families.
Something needs to change. We need Directors of Children’s Services to be system leaders, and we need to ensure that they are equipped with the appropriate skills and resources to do this, backed up by an enabling policy framework that allows them to deliver effective services to those that need them.
The ongoing obsession with the variance in current spend and demand will not provide the answer; it exists across our regions, counties, cities and towns, and always will. The socio-economic factors that drive demand in children’s services are as broad as they are unpredictable. What’s more important is that local authorities can offer a consistent narrative regarding value, and demonstrable impacts in the form of cost and outcomes from every pound spent.
That is why IMPOWER developed the Valuing Care programme, which strengthens the links between children’s needs, the outcomes being pursued, and the resources available. By better capturing and reviewing the needs of looked after children, and by assessing value and outcomes rather than focussing on containment of risk, it enables councils to make better decisions on support, placements and commissioning.
Valuing Care is one element of our Valuing Children campaign, the ambition of which is to improve the lives of 100,000 children by maximising value and eradicating unnecessary demand in children’s services. Our aim is to make the system better and fairer.
We are proud to be part of the research project being undertaken by NLGN. The final report will not be yet another analysis of demand; there are plenty of those already in circulation. Those in the sector already know that there is too much unnecessary demand, a lack of clarity regarding the role of the community and targeted prevention in meeting it, and insufficient funding for many councils to even try. Instead, the report will set out a strategic response to the current challenge facing children’s services, and a series of recommendations for practical change at a national and local level, including at the Department of Education which has faced criticism from both the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee.
The project comes at crucial time as councils anticipate the Spending Review later this year. It will provide a great opportunity for the sector to contribute a robust evidence base, shining a light on the nature and scale of the challenge faced by children’s services across the country, and demonstrating how policy change or improvement could deliver improved outcomes for children in the future.
We look forward to the launch of the report in September. If you would like to find out more about the project or get involved, please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Sarah Lawson (email@example.com).
Olly Swann is a Director at IMPOWER.